Friday, November 14, 2008

What I Heard In Niagara Falls: Chesterton, Zizek, and "Christian Atheism"

On a recent trip to Niagara Falls I had the opportunity to hear Aaron Dunlap of Temple University give a paper entitled "Revolution, Paradox, and the Christian Tradition: A Chestertonian Debate between John Milbank and Slavoj Zizek."

This paper was very interesting because it shed light one of the most renowned philosophers of today (Slavoj Zizek) and explained the main connection he has with G.K. Chesterton (whom he quotes frequently). It also included a concise and arresting presentation of what I consider to be one of Chesterton's most provocative statements. You do not see it quoted often in evangelical writings, but Zizek loves it, and Dunlap explains why. What follows is an excerpt. You can read this paper in full at The Land of Unlikeness, where the conclusion is especially wonderful.

"To get right to the point, it seems that what Zizek really gets from Chesterton is the idea that, in the arsenal of human language and thought, paradox is the best weapon we have, the most effective way of getting at the truth of human existence. Chesterton's description [from Orthodoxy] of Christ’s cry from the cross is a good example of how he employs paradox:

'When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.'

Zizek quotes these words in a book of his entitled On Belief, and when he calls himself a “Christian atheist” as I heard him do once at a talk in Philadelphia he is agreeing with Chesterton that Xity, by revealing God to have been abandoned by God, places a certain value on the atheist, as when Chesterton notes that 'The next best thing to really being inside Christendom is to be really outside of it.'

For Zizek, and I think for Cheseterton as well, this brutally honest cry given by the dying Christ, is an example not only of a unique kind of God, but also sets the groundwork for a certain type of thinking, for a certain type of philosophizing. In reading Zizek a quote from Chesterton is often followed by one from Hegel, for it was Hegel, according to Zizek, who gave philosophical voice to paradox, who even constructed his entire system around it.

An all powerful God, for Hegel, is revealed most truly in the moment of greatest weakness and desolation, which is a necessary moment in the revelation of that God. For Hegel the all powerful God of the Jews, inasmuch as he communicates with his creation, does so most authentically not through a revelation of words, of sacred texts, but through a revelation of Word, that is, incarnation."

Like I said, the conclusion is excellent, and explains why, in the end, Zizek is really more atheist than Christian. But I have always thought this an intriguing and insightful point, as I said previously in my post on Bergman's Winter Light, and so it was awesome to hear this paper not only broach the issue but deal with it so eloquently.

I hope to share some more of what I saw and heard at Niagara Falls, but that was one of the most interesting things for sure.


Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

"They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist."

This is amazing stuff Jon.

I get frustrated by "only in Christianity" statements, because they usually reveal more about the writer/speaker's ignorance of other religions/ideologies than they do about Christianity's peculiarity. I don't think Christianity can make many legitimate claims to originality. However, in this case Zizek is right.

Jesus as atheist. That's crazily fascinating.

"Xianity... places a certain value on the atheist."

Woe. I haven't been impressed by Christian thought in a while (sorry!), but this is gonna have me pondering for days. Although, valuing atheism is inconsistent with the message I take from the Bible -ie. 'The Fool in his heart,' and all that.

Anyway, great post.

jon said...

hmmm. we may be a bit loose and carefree with our "only in Christianity" statements. good check on that. i make them a lot, at least concerning such things as incarnation and resurrection, trinity and such. but that claim is made too much, i'll agree. one of the things i've been learning (or trying to learn) lately has been to recognize the commonalities between Christianity and the world, rather than just the uniquenesses. In my own vernacular that means recognizing the Spirit outside the Church, and outside the typical places we say we find the Spirit working. Put another way it means finding our common humanity, even though as a Christian I am going to interpret lots of what I find differently.

One place I do this a lot is with sadness, longing, and such. I have almost zero tools for lament in my Church culture, and I feel this is an important part of being a human being (let alone a Christian), and I find plenty of vehicles for lamentation in the wonderful movies and music made outside the Church.

anyway, thanks for sending me off on that rabbit trail.

i thought you might like the atheist bit. i am not haphazardly throwing it out there. i do think there is a very important role for honest doubt and questioning. good point about "the fool in his heart", but don't forget the Bible is also where we find Job, the psalmist, and Thomas (who gets a worse rap from the Church than he did from his peers).

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

"I have almost zero tools for lament in my Church culture."

Yeah, that was something that bothered me a lot in Christianity. I remember a prof at CBC pointing out that Psalm 88 ends with the Psalmist saying, "Darkness is my only friend." It ENDS like that. That astonished and somehow delighted me. Scripture made room for sorrow that didn't have to add a P.S. at the end saying, "but I still love you Jesus, you're such an amazing guy."

The call to perpetual optimism in Western Evangelical circles was really oppressive for me. Not that the church is entirely to blame for that; it's mostly culturally based. So I guess the church should be blamed for the larger sin of not making strong enough distinctions between religious and cultural values.

Re: Job, the Psalmist(s), and Thomas: you're right. I just don't think the Bible is consistent. I think Job's virtue in questioning God really is inconsistent with other parts of scripture which seem to demand completely blind faith. But that's a long conversation, and I certainly have a healthy amount of respect for people who try to force complete harmony onto 66 books written over thousands of years based on manuscripts that don't always line up with one another. Ha. No, I really do.

When I came onto the site today a Sigur Ros song was playing REALLY quietly on your music player. So quietly that I thought I was hearing things. It freaked me out. In a good way. There's something so lovely about music at such an extremely low level.

joel said...

Yeah the best part about paradox is that it comes ‘after’ orthodox; and better yet- what opinion would be best kept in a box if it weren’t placed outside the box?!

I can see it now, the label on the cover of the orthodox box “paradox, the posting of an opinion after it is taken out of the ortho-box” Brought to by matel, the makers of material telephones…

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

umm... what?

ortho-box? Ha.

jon said...

joel: i'm not sure i really get it, but i think its funny(?).

joel said...

yeah, I was just being silly

Tony Tanti said...

This is a very interesting conversation, before the funny ortho-box bit I mean, though that was great as well.

Several comments sticking out to me:

1 - "...recognize the commonalities between Christianity and the world, rather than just the uniquenesses."

2 - "I don't think Christianity can make many legitimate claims to originality."

3 - "The call to perpetual optimism in Western Evangelical circles was really oppressive for me."

4 - "...respect for people who try to force complete harmony onto 66 books written over thousands of years based on manuscripts that don't always line up..."

I`d love to see each of these expanded on by you two. Some questions:

1 - I totally agree but is this thinking consistent with the Bible.

2 - Here I need some examples of other religions where God died to save the people he created with flaws he knew were coming. Also some examples of a religion where no works are required. Or another religion where service to others is the top priority. Maybe I`m ignorant but those are things I was raised to believe were unique to Xianity and in my ignorance I can`t think of examples to the contrary.

3 - I think I hear what you mean here, the idea of being joyful (ie: happy) in suffering has always annoyed me, but there was plenty of lamenting for sin in my church upbringing, this became guilt and I see it as a negative. Are these two different issues.

4 - Any honest biblical scholar admits the difficulty of this task at times, unfortunately there are many dishonest "scholars" who are informing too many Xians with easy answers.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...


I had stopped checking this thread. I hope I'm not too late to respond.

Question 2: this is a big subject. I'll plead laziness, and recommend Joseph Campbell (sorry, I know it's bad form).

I will say that the "original" things you listed can be traced back to older religions and myths. Christianity built on them, and 2000 years of theology added philosophical complexity to our understanding of the Christian super-myth; but there are a lot of eerie similarities in the stories of scripture and those of ancient forgotten religions.

I'm sure Jon knows more than me about this.

Question 3; Yeah two different issues. 1) You've got to be pessimistic about yourself, and 2) you've got to be optimistic about everything else. Again, this is pretty culturally based; though our culture has roots in Christianity, so...

Question 4: I do seriously respect such scholars, even if I no longer find them at all convincing.